Commander Kevin Rowlands is a naval officer who was awarded a PhD in 2015 through the Defence Studies Department. He is the editor of 21st Century Gorshkov, recently published by the US Naval Institute Press. In the following post he argues the origins of Russia’s current maritime strategy can be traced to the former longstanding commander-in-chief of the Soviet Navy.
When HMS Queen Elizabeth put to sea for the first time on 26 June 2017 Sir Michael Fallon, the British Secretary of State for Defence, announced that the Russians would be “admiring” her. Compare that rhetoric to earlier in the year when Russia’s sole aircraft carrier, Admiral Kuznetsov, deployed to the Eastern Mediterranean. Then it was vilified by politicians, including Fallon, and in parts of the media as the “ship of shame.” Its military and ethical contribution to the prosecution of the Syrian civil war is certainly debatable and, tactically, it could have gone much better for the Russians. Two jets were lost and for much of its time in the theatre the carrier’s remaining air wing operated from ashore not afloat.
Strategically, however, the deployment was a reaffirmation of Russia’s maritime ascendency. This simple image of Russian power projection in NATO’s backyard is symbolic of the new Cold War at sea. Kuznetsov manoeuvred in crowded waterspace, at times part of an uncomfortable triumvirate of aircraft carriers striking at positions in the Levant alongside FS Charles de Gaullle and USS Dwight D Eisenhower. And when its job was done it returned home via the North African coast hosting General Haftar, commander of the Libyan National Army and Moscow’s preferred local strongman, on board for talks. The message to the region was clear – Russia stands by its allies in times of need and is willing to reach out to those who will work with it in future. Its message to the West was similarly unambiguous – Russia’s navy is back. Taken together it was classic naval diplomacy employing a combination of hard and soft power to communicate Moscow’s intent to a wide and varied audience.
But the Kuznetsov deployment was not an aberration. At the same time that the carrier was operating in the Mediterranean, and since, there have been more Russian Federation Navy units underway and out-of-area than at any time in the interregnum between the demise of the Soviet Union and the start of the new Cold War at sea. There has been significant presence in the North Atlantic, the Baltic and Black Seas and it was rumoured that two Oscar Class “carrier killer” SSGNs were positioned ready to track Charles de Gaulle and Ike as they passaged westward. Russia had surveillance vessels operating in the Persian Gulf and Red Sea and a range of other units deployed globally. Long range aviation sorties have risen in number and prominence and impressive strike technologies, such as the Kalibr missile system, have been unveiled and put to use. Russia is fielding multi-faceted capability at, on and under the sea stretching over vast oceanic distances and is able to give pause for thought to friends, potential foes and the undecided alike.
We should not be surprised. Moscow’s ambitions and strategic outlook have not changed. Russia sees itself as a great power and demands recognition and respect on the world stage. It cannot compete economically with the West and its expression of power therefore errs towards political influence gained through military strength – and guile. Historically a continental power, Russia has looked increasingly to the sea from the time of Peter the Great onwards, but it was one man who really grew the navy from a backward coastal defence force to a true ocean-going blue water force to be reckoned with. Admiral of the Fleet of the Soviet Union Sergei Georgiyevich Gorshkov (1910-1988) was not a counter to the Anglo-American school of naval theory characterised by the works of Alfred Thayer Mahan and Sir Julian Corbett, for he turned many of their ideas to his own ends. But he was, and still is, a different voice speaking from a different perspective – one of maritime entry-ism by a state without a deep-seated maritime tradition – and it would be remiss of Western observers to try to interpret Russian behaviour now without recourse to his thoughts and actions from the 1950s to the 1980s.
The problems that Gorshkov faced when building and employing the Cold War Soviet Navy are little different to those facing the Russian Federation Navy today. For instance, physical geography still works to constrain Russia’s attempts to be a maritime power. Its four fleets (the Northern, Baltic, Black Sea and Pacific) must navigate enormous challenges before they can even get to operate in what Gorshkov termed the “World Ocean.” First, the Northern Fleet bases are closed by ice for six months of the year and the Baltic and Pacific Fleets are similarly affected for about three months each winter. Icebreakers are needed, as is assured access to warm water ports. The opening of the Northern Sea Route will provide greater opportunities to exert influence in the High North in future, but the fact remains that the Russian Federation Navy is necessarily constructed to operate in harsh conditions that are not always conducive to small ship or ship-launched flying operations.
Second, even during ice-free periods, each of the fleets must pass through choke points that the West can relatively easily dominate. The Northern Fleet has to break through the Greenland-Iceland-United Kingdom gap if it is to reach the Atlantic; the Baltic Fleet needs to pass through the Kattegat and Skaggerak; the Black Sea Fleet is confined by the Turkish Straits; and the Pacific Fleet is hindered by the La Perouse Strait to the north of the Japanese Home Islands and by the Tsushima Strait between Japan and South Korea. To break through each of these choke points potentially requires a degree of local sea control, and that takes effort. A capable submarine force and land-based long range aviation are needed to clear the way so that Northern Fleet striking force ships can follow on. The narrow seas affecting the Baltic, Black and Pacific Fleets are less suitable for submarine operations and Gorshkov developed Naval Infantry for limited area operations to seize and hold ground while the fleets passed. It is not coincidental that Russia is developing high speed landing craft today and was in the market for French built Mistral Class amphibious assault ships before post-Ukraine sanctions led to their sale to Egypt.
Once in the “World Ocean”, the Russian fleets then face the problem of sustainment. Gorshkov was acutely aware that his navy did not have a tradition of replenishment at sea nor a network of logistic bases around the globe. He worked to fix it by introducing auxiliary supply ships, by conditioning his sailors to longer periods away from home, and by negotiating support facilities with aligned states. At various times Albania, Cuba, Angola, South Yemen, Syria and Vietnam all proved vital to Soviet forward presence. Today, that list could include Crimea, Syria, Nicaragua and, in future, Libya, India and even China.
Gorshkov took a full spectrum approach to naval operations decades before it was fashionable. He drew together the exploitation of natural resources, the conduct of mercantile business, the enabling of legal frameworks, and maritime security into his vision of sea power. He saw clearly that by combining the various elements of sea power, which included not only the navy but also fishing fleets, the merchant marine and scientific research, the state’s interests could be progressed. Today, Russia’s sea power is executed by the same range of agencies – there should be no false distinction between the Navy, law and security enforcement bodies and commercial enterprises when it comes to extending Moscow’s authority. The Russian maritime strategy which was published in 2015 and is being put into practice today is not all about fighting wars at sea, but about forward presence, prestige and influence. It could have been written by Gorshkov. Perhaps in some ways it was.
Image: HMS Queen Elizabeth in Rosyth Dockyard via defence images.